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As featured on Blavity.com; Writer: Kadeem Pilgrim
Today, I find myself confronting an inner battle that I’ve been dealing with for well over two years. The source of my conflicting feelings?
Kanye Omari West.
While that name has lost the veneration it once garnered from the Black community, we as a people would be remiss to pretend that Kanye’s music was not pivotal in hip-hop's transition into the mainstream. Songs like “Jesus Walks” and “Gold Digger” did more than making Kanye West a household name; his music spoke to a generation of Black youths who, like West, had grown tired of filtering themselves for White America.
His debut album, The College Dropout, without a doubt, changed the sound of hip-hop and introduced young listeners to a subject matter that transcended what was playing on the radio at the time. Music that at one point seemed to focus solely on depreciating the value of Black women, and glorifying the acquisition of fancy cars and new drip, was observing a shift. Every project that followed would further cement Kanye’s significance in music history. West would become known for making hits that were an amalgamation of infectious hooks and thought-provoking subject matters.
Anxiety and depression, interracial dating, generational poverty; there seemed to be no limit to the topics that West would free from the confines of our inner thoughts and turn into platinum works of art. He had a platform and, for a moment in time, Kanye was uncompromising in his pursuit of speaking out against the disparities he witnessed against his community.
From his unbridled claims that Bush didn’t care about Black people to the infamous 2009 MTV VMAs when he declared Beyoncé as the rightful “Video of the Year” recipient (and was he wrong?), it seemed that West’s convictions knew no bounds.
Today, looking back on early Kanye feels like reflecting on a brief, albeit impactful moment from childhood. The memories of pre-MAGA West now seem foggy; the details of his heroism have lost lucidity and the pride that I once felt in calling myself a Kanye fan has been replaced with wavering care.
The transition from Black advocate to token Black seemed to happen not slowly but all at once. And while many are quick to blame the Kardashian clan for West’s drastic change, I challenge that perception by asking the question many of us seem too afraid to confront: What if this is just simply who Kanye is?
Over the last four years we as a people have witnessed Kanye all but formally cut ties with the Black community. His opinion that Black America should pick itself up by its bootstraps and stop complaining about the inequalities that his money and network of influencers now allow him to bypass unscathed comes across as tone-deaf. Moreover, Kanye’s decision to use poor mental health as the reason for his unfounded statements, many of which yield deleterious consequences for people of color, is both irreverent and irresponsible.
I find myself avoiding articles that detail his post-Yeezus antics — his trips to the White House, his decision to incorporate the confederate flag into his tour merch, his claims that slavery was a choice. (How Sway?!)
Admittedly, I’ve spent the last few years playing the role of enabler. I was the person who challenged those who were anti-Kanye to separate the man from the music. I would often urge my friends and family to judge him based on his body of work. His actions weren’t intentional, rather, he was simply struggling to get a grip on a mental disorder that no one but Kanye could comprehend the magnitude of.
Yes. I was that person. He was me and I was him.
It wasn’t until the Monday following Howard University’s homecoming, an event I’d grown attached to after attending the HBCU for graduate school, that I was forced to grapple with the truth.
The impromptu Sunday Service, which was ironically held on the Saturday of Howard’s homecoming weekend, left little to no standing room on the University’s legendary yard. As West led his followers (I mean, choir) through a series of gospel remixes and pseudo-inspirational sermons, it seemed as if the bad behavior our community seemed so dead set on having him be held to task for went up in smoke. (Or in this case, high notes and 808s.)
Following homecoming weekend, I found myself in a sparring match with a coworker who argued that West was just as dangerous as other artists who have been under fire for reasons that surpass reasonable doubt. Their argument was that West’s decision to visit Howard University is the very same reason he incorporates Black influencers into his Yeezy campaigns.
Regardless of whether or not he truly sees us anymore, Kanye sees the Black dollar. More than that, Kanye and his team aren’t negligent of the fact that the Black community is, and always has been, a key pillar in his success as a recording artist.
So, Kanye will continue to market to the Black community all while uplifting the very force that threatens our rights as Americans. He will continue to say what’s on his mind, and while most of it will be unsubstantiated, people will listen and take sides. And what will we do?
We will continue to fume and accuse him of turning his back on his people. We will speak amongst ourselves of “old Kanye” as if his early advocacy is nothing more than a tale that Gerald is the keeper of (if you know, you know). More than that, we will denounce his antics and claim that he’s canceled — until he gives us a new hit.
At this point, I truly don’t know what’s worse: The fact that the Black community will continue to support Kanye’s music despite his blatant disregard for our welfare, or the fact that I may likely remain as one of those supporters?
May my people and I find a resolution.